Clint Dempsey's inexcusable actions toward referee deserve punishment
There is no defense for Clint Dempsey's anger-fueled decision to grab a referee's notebook and tear it up during Tuesday night's U.S. Open Cup match between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. It was a sign of frustration, but that doesn't excuse Dempsey.
In extra time, the Sounders striker and U.S. national team captain had protested a questionable decision by referee Daniel Radford in sending off teammate Micheal Azira for elbowing Portland's Gaston Fernandez. It appeared that Radford was about to give Dempsey a yellow card for arguing the call before the player proceeded to rip the official's notebook, which resulted in a red card.
By grabbing and destroying the referee's property, Dempsey crossed a line that no player, much less a player of his caliber and reputation, should cross. U.S. Soccer Federation policy states that "damaging the referee's uniform or personal property" is considered referee assault, which draws a minimum three-month ban.
Although Dempsey's actions meet the standard of "referee assault," a three-month suspension is too much. Dempsey crossed a line. He broke a cardinal rule of the game by disrespecting the referee and his tools, but he did not touch the referee himself. He did not push, punch, bump, or otherwise contact the person of the referee. As long as U.S. Soccer can maintain some semblance of respectability, and avoid the appearance of giving Dempsey star treatment, consideration should be given to that fact.
Remember, a suspension handed down by U.S. Soccer would disqualify Dempsey from playing for both his country and his club for the duration. The USSF is Major League Soccer's sanctioning body, meaning the league must follow the Federation's ban. MLS can extend it if they see fit (they won't), but they cannot shorten it. A long suspension means no Gold Cup, but also no games for the Sounders during the difficult summer.
Don't expect U.S. Soccer to give Dempsey the full three months. More likely is a long, but defensible suspension closer to five or six games.
Like it or not, Dempsey is a role model. The highest-paid player on a high-profile team and a U.S. international, his influence goes well beyond the passes he makes and the goals he scores. He might prefer to be just a player and nothing more, but the job of being a professional athlete demands he live up to a certain standard in his behavior.
Dempsey blowing his top last night wasn't just about him or his team (whom he hurt by losing his cool), it was about the image he presents to those who want to be like him one day.
There are millions (we hope) of aspiring Clint Dempseys in America. They shouldn't be getting the message from the man himself that tearing up a referee's notebook is OK.
And let's not forget Dempsey's role as U.S. captain, a title that makes his blowup even more troubling. When national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann bestowed the honor on Dempsey, the understanding was that the Texan embodied the competitive spirit the head coach wanted the team to have across the board. Klinsmann didn't sign up for the outburst against Radford that now has his captain under a cloud of a possible suspension.
It's not our place to tell Klinsmann who his team's captain should be, or if Dempsey still deserves the armband. But if the position of captain is meant to go to a player who leads by example, a player who maintains the respect of the team and fans alike, Dempsey has spectacularly failed.
Dempsey put the USSF in a tough position where they must weigh several issues before handing down a decision. The fault lies with the player, not the referee, and he must accept whatever punishment is handed down. After the disgusting display he put on in the Open Cup, it's the least he can do and the first step in regaining some sort of respectability.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.